Samuel L. Jackson is regarded by many as the coolest cat in Hollywood, a reputation that was first formed by his dazzling performance in Pulp Fiction (1994) as drug hitman Jules Winfield. Flanked by John Travolta, who plays the thickheaded Vincent Vega, Jackson’s Jules employs Biblical verses to disarm his prey before emptying his revolver on their bad selves.
Since Pulp Fiction, which airs Monday night (October 5) at 10:56 p.m. ET on Starz, Jackson has brought his nonchalant charisma to such movies as Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, Shaft, Snakes On a Plane, Lakeview Terrace, Captain America, and countless Capital One commercials. When you see Sam on screen, you just know that something fun will follow.
But what if Quentin Tarantino had not cast Jackson in Pulp? Would he be the star that he is today? Would he be our culture’s very embodiment of cool?
Probably not. Prior to Jules, Jackson was largely relegated to minor roles in such films as Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, True Romance and Patriot Games. He was so unnoticed by Hollywood that he wasn’t even mentioned in this Roger Ebert review of True Romance or Ebert’s review of Patriot Games.
Pulp Fiction changed all that, but it almost didn’t.
Samuel L. Jackson in the scene that made a career:
Laurence Fishburne, who prior to Pulp had appeared in significant roles in King of New York, Apocalypse Now and School Daze, was the bigger star. Much bigger, in fact. So Tarantino first asked Fishburne to play Jules, although the director was a big Sam Jackson fan. (Tarantino was the writer of True Romance.)
Fortunately, Fishburne said no.
“Pulp Fiction wasn’t for me,” the actor told Vulture recently. “Quentin wrote that part (Jules Winfield]) with me in mind, too, but it wasn’t for me.”
“I just had a problem with the way the heroin use was dealt with (in the movie),” he recalls. “I just felt it was a little cavalier, and it was a little loose. I felt like it made heroin use attractive.”
Did Tarantino then cast Jackson? Nope. Sam had to struggle again. Vanity Fair reports that Jackson had to fly to LA to do a last-minute audition before getting the role.
“I sort of was angry, pissed, tired,” Jackson recalls in a 2013 interview with the magazine.
“He was also hungry, so he bought a takeout burger on his way to the studio, only to find nobody there to greet him,” Vanity Fair writes.
“When they came back, a line producer or somebody who was with them said, ‘I love your work, Mr. Fishburne,’” Jackson said. “It was like a slow burn. He doesn’t know who I am? I was kind of like, F— it. At that point I really didn’t care.”
But Pulp producer Richard Gladstein remembers Jackson’s incredible audition.
“In comes Sam with a burger in his hand and a drink in the other hand and stinking like fast food. Me and Quentin and Lawrence (Bender, another producer on the movie) were sitting on the couch, and he walked in and just started sipping that shake and biting that burger and looking at all of us. I was scared s—–less. I thought that this guy was going to shoot a gun right through my head. His eyes were popping out of his head. And he just stole the part.”
And the rest is Hollywood history.
Pulp Fiction airs Monday, October 5, at 10:56 p.m. ET on Starz.
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